Alan Furst, author of the historical spy novel “Hero of France,” returns to France during the period the country was under Nazi occupation in World War II in his latest novel, “Under Occupation.”
As we see in the stories of the late, great spy novelist Eric Ambler, whom Mr. Furst references several times in “Under Occupation,” the hero of Mr. Furst’s story is not a seasoned secret agent, but rather an “everyman” protagonist, a French Parisian detective novelist with zero experience in actual intrigue.
In 1942, Parisian writer Paul Ricard is comfortable physically and safe living in Paris under Nazi rule in France. The ruling Nazis allow Paul Ricard to continue writing his non-political detective novels (much like the real-life writer George Simenon, author of the Inspector Maigret stories). Detective novels are popular in occupied France.
“The French, cities blacked out, apartments frigid, rationed food hard to come by, soap a rare treasure, were intent on reading their way through the occupation, the detective novel by far the genre of choice because it took the reader away from the grim reality of daily life,” Mr. Furst tells us.
Yet, like many French citizens, Ricard seethes secretly at the brutal Nazis who occupy his country. While walking the streets of Paris, a man being pursued by the French police slams into Ricard. The fleeing man, who has been shot, handed the writer a slip of notebook paper and then dies as the French police officers, called the “flics” in French slang, surround the body.
The slip of paper handed to Ricard was an engineering schematic of a detonator. The schematic leads Ricard into the world of the French Resistance and he becomes an underground Resistance operative against the Nazis. He later comes into contact with brave, anti-Nazi Polish workers.
Based on actual history, as Mr. Furst notes, the German Occupation Authority rounded up Poles who were electricians, welders and machinists, and forced them into slave labor at the German U-Boats naval yards in Germany. The Poles fought back by stealing technical information about the U-Boats and smuggled the valuable information to Paris, where it was forwarded to the British Secret Intelligence Service.
“At forty, he had a moderately handsome face but was no movie star,” Mr. Furst writes, describing Paul Ricard. “Still, women were greatly attracted to him; he was smart and funny and kind, with one particularly appealing feature: he had green eyes, a deep, rich green, knowing eyes, intelligent eyes. He had also a naturally seductive voice, quiet and assured and just deep enough.”
Ricard agrees to work with the French Resistance after he hands the sketch over to them. As a journalist prior to becoming a detective novelist, Ricard was told to see the editor of a pro-Vichy and pro-Nazi publication. The editor, blackmailed by the French Resistance, assigns him to cover an event in Germany, which begins Ricard’s adventures in espionage across Germany and France.
He works with two women. One is a young woman named Kasia, an emigre Pole, who works as a cashier in a bookstore. She looked like a Parisian street kid with dark eyes and dark hair cut short like a boy’s and a shapely body. Sitting in her room above a stockyard, she fantasizes about a woman she saw on the Metro. But she could only fantasize as she first had to rob a bank. Working with a French criminal gang, the bank robbery goes wrong and Kasia goes into hiding.
The second woman Ricard works with is named Leila, his contact with the French Resistance. The writer is told to go to a closed toy store where the door will be open for him.
“In a shadowed corner of the store Ricard saw a striking woman: thirtyish and dark with a gently curved nose and eyes almost black,” Mr. Furst writes. “She comes, Ricard thought, from the eastern Mediterranean, from Turkey perhaps. Stylish and poised, she wore a slate-gray raincoat and tight, shiny black gloves with gold buttons at the wrist, she could have, then and there, posed for the cover of a fashion magazine.”
Assigned to suppress the French Resistance is a Wehrmacht major named Erhard Geisler who worked for the intelligence service of the Nazi Party. SS Maj. Geisler is described as a pear-shaped man in his 40s, bland and colorless, with clear-shaped eyeglasses. He made lists and the people on the lists were sent to concentration camps or immediately executed. But Maj. Geiser never did this personally. He was known as a “Schreibtischmoder,” a desk-murderer.
“Under Occupation” is a well-written and well-researched historical spy novel that fans of the genre in general and Alan Furst in particular will enjoy.
• Paul Davis covers crime, espionage and terrorism.
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By Alan Furst
Random House, $27, 224 pages